1617 S. Beretania and Grandmothers.

In a small way, as I think many of us do in our attempt to find ourselves closer to our Barack Obama, we look for moments in which we can connect with him and his struggle to what now seems like a pre-ordained victory for not only the presidency, but for a new kind of international statesmanship that we may finally be able to look up to. My friend from Hawaii lives two blocks away from Obama in Hyde Park in Chicago. A few weeks ago he told me how their immediate neighborhood has now changed. Another friend who lives in Highland Park/Eagle Rock near Occidental where Obama also attended college wondered why the press doesn’t seem to care so much about his time in Los Angeles, the east side. And my Punahou friends, well many are beside themselves with glee. For many of us growing up in Hawaii, and for those who went to the same school at the same time (not me) and remembered brushing alongside him in class, or knowing his family, teachers, friends, or friends of friends even, it becomes a sentimental privilege to know that the flotsam we’ve left behind may have traveled with him towards his presidency. I was told a few months ago, just before the DNC, that Obama’s grandmother lived in the same apartment building my grandmother did before she passed away. In disbelief, I thought they were mistaken, but sure enough Punahou Circle is the apartment that my grandmother had lived in since the early 70s, the building I too, spent much of my time in! Thinking back, I remember the man who was then known as Barry.  Thre were few kids who lived in the apartment and he was the only black kid.  He was a few years older than me so there was no reason for us to interact, but I remember him at the apartment commons with his friends, or dribbling the basketball in the parking lot, or running up the stairs, and I a have faint recollection of there being some kind of a graduation party get-together. Years ago, I moved to NYC, then to LA, and when in 1990 my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, I’d return more frequently while she was sick. Upon leaving, there always hung a weight, a collapsing feeling as though it would be my last visit, and there always remained the hope that a few months later I’d be seeing her again. Even after she passed away, having struggled with cancer for ten years, I’d still return to her apartment to visit my uncle who had since moved in and continued to live there until he could no longer reside with her memory so close at every moment. Ironically, I was working with Indymedia, covering the 2000 DNC at the Staples Center in Los Angeles the last time I received the call to come home. Unfortunately, that last time I arrived too late. Well rehearsed at saying goodbye, I know what it is like to step on and off the elevator in that apartment building after each last goodbye (there were many of them) and inhale the last breath of Hawaii before heading to the airport for that long flight back east. I think Obama might know, if he doesn’t already share the same sentiment, that it is that elevator from the Punahou Circle apartment building that carries special significance to the “last goodbye.” What must seem like a maudlin exercise, is more like an empathic gesture to another who undoubtedly wonders why the elevator buttons are always oily and why the third floor button– the one that is cracked– has a miniscule puddle of oil trapped within. I cracked that button when I was 12, cracked it with the tip of my grandmother’s umbrella. Although I haven’t been there for nearly seven years, I know it hasn’t changed. There is still the dark faux wood paneling and the stainless steel doors which also maintain an oily veneer. As Obama must know, this elevator stands out because it is that solitary time in which you dedicate the lone and silent descent, the cherishable minute where the lingering image of the last goodbye is permeated with the fragrance of machine oil. Then when the door opens on the ground floor, the trade winds greet you (or mist if it is raining), and the smell of oil is replaced with Hawaii’s more generic fragrance of plants and flowers. Maybe Obama recalls when the elevator call buttons switched over and required keys for security. Does he remember Mr. and Mrs. Matthewman sitting down for a Christmas or Thanksgiving bite on their way to the next tenant? How about Froggie’s or Interlude books? How much of his education did he receive sitting in the aisles perusing Nietzsche, Homer and Dale Carnegie? Certainly he must remember Charles, the homeless man who looks like a dirty version of the gold mosaic Jesus on the wall of the Mormon temple half-a-block away between the Banyan Tree and Foodland. It is comforting that Obama knows the music of the Bon dance from the Japanese mission next door, the kiai jutsu of children in their Tuesday night karate classes, and the Samoan Choir that sings almost daily at the little church on the corner besides the apartment’s tiny community garden which before that was a concrete play yard. He knows the church bells from Central Union Church across the street, and certainly must have mourned the loss of the obake masks at Cinerama theatre. He knows the rhythm of traffic and the stopping and starting of buses from the bus stop across the street. He knows the howl of the wind from the wooden louvers from the front window, and undoubtedly, he must have laughed– as everyone did– at my grandmother’s car. My grandmother, at 4’10”, had a bright yellow 71 Dodge Dart Custom with a straight 8 engine. She sat with a telephone book as a cushion and as she drove, she could only see through the steering wheel. In that building, my grandmother was famous. Now, it is Obama’s grandmother who brings fame and pride to all who live there. There is an intimacy that I never thought I would ever share with anyone, and it is all the peculiar smells that have lingered throughout the years in that building. The garbage chute, which is on the side where our grandmothers lived, when opened, on most days will blow the dust of garbage up into your face. I’m sure Obama has learned as I have, to turn your head when opening the garbage chute. I don’t know where Obama’s grandmother broke her hip, but I know that when it rains the walkway can get very slippery. Another grandmother who lived down the hall, slipped and broke her hip 15 years ago, she has since died. As much as this is a tribute to all who have lost their grandmothers at Punahou Circle Apartments, I think it is important for all to know that Hawaii is a place of constant mourning. It is everywhere, in history old and new, and that is why everything, even an elevator can wield so much in terms of memory. The tourist industry will always try to paint Hawaii as a place of beauty and aloha– which it is– but the other side of that fact is that people are constantly in mourning. It is simply part of daily life– of thoughtful, meaningful living– and we should applaud that our next president might understand that sentiment. It would be a tremendous gift if we were able to share that with the world.  ]]>